THIS November, the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR) held a brief two-day seminar on human rights in the Philippines. While the intended audience were journalists, with the presentation aimed at improving coverage of the sensitive topic, we here at the Baguio Chronicle think it is a good topic to share with the readers. Here are the talking points of that two-day seminar, condensed.
The history of human rights
According to no less than Atty. Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno, the global movement for human rights began at the tail end of the Second World War, when the United Nations (UN) was formed.
In the preamble to the UN Charter, it says as much – “Whereas, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
The very first article of the UN Charter states that the UN itself is a means to promote human rights – quote, “The Purposes of the United Nations are…to promote and encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedom for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion….”
The UN Charter explicitly tags the organization as a means to promote higher standards of living among other goals, and merely three years later, the UN would promulgate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, enshrining the basic rights of all humans as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” it says in Article 1, and “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind,” in Article 2.
The Philippines played an active role in the formation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the Philippine delegation headed by General Carlos P. Romulo defending the draft declaration at the UN General Assembly, leading to it eventually passing after much debate.
Eventually, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a multilateral treaty, was established, protecting and enshrining the right to life, liberty, free speech and expression, and the right against torture and cruelty, among other rights.
Under the ICCPR’s first optional protocol, which the Philippines first acceded to in 1989, individuals may file complaints of human rights violations against states that have ratified the ICCPR.
Meanwhile, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognizes rights to work, free choice of employment and fair wages, the right to unionize, social security, adequate standards of living, freedom from hunger and to health, and the right to education, was ratified by the Philippines in 1974.
Under our Constitution, the treaties we have ratified form part of the law of the land.
In the Philippines, the fight for human rights started all the way back in 1899 when the country instituted the Malolos Constitution, which recognized, among others, the right against detainment or imprisonment without the commission of a crime, privacy of correspondence and communications except upon court order, freedom from arbitrary searches and seizures, freedom of expression and the press, freedom of association, the right to petition the government, and the right to recover damages for human rights violations, among other rights.
These rights would be reiterated in the 1935 Constitution, which established the Philippine Bill of Rights, and again after the ousting of the Marcos dictatorship in the 1987 Constitution, which expanded the Bill of Rights to include protections against torture, degrading treatments of detainees and prisoners, and prohibitions of secret detention places and detention based on political belief. It also put stricter restrictions on the declaration of Martial Law in an attempt to avoid a repetition of the Marcos dictatorship’s Martial Law period.
The 1987 Constitution also established the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
The human rights situation – now
Even with all of the provisions to ensure human rights are observed and protected in the Philippines, there are many lapses present.
According to Transparency International, the Philippines in 2020 belonged to the two-thirds of the countries with a corruption perception index (CPI) below 50, which tags the country as “highly corrupt.”
According to Corruption as a Violation of International Human Rights by Anne Peters, countries with high levels of corruption are typically the ones with poor human rights records.
Diokno says such – human rights are meaningless if victims of violations have no viable legal remedies. Impunity is commonplace as the justice system has a low conviction rate, exceedingly slow litigation, high vacancy rates for judges and prosecutors, a highly politicized appointment process, and a lack of judicial transparency and accountability.
Carlos Conde, a researcher for Human Rights Watch Asia describes the commonplace culture of impunity and lack of accountability for human rights abuses in the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranks the Philippines 7th in its Impunity Index, according to Conde.
In the culture of impunity, there is no justice for media killings, and there has been practically zero accountability for former president Duterte’s drug war abuses, with only the case of Kian de los Santos leading to any conviction of police involved in drug war slayings.
Human rights groups continue to report threats, arbitrary arrests, and trumped-up cases, as well as ever-present red-tagging, or linking individuals and organizations to the organized communist terrorist element of the Philippines. Red-tagging has run rampant in the country, targeting activists, labor unions whose rights to unionize are enshrined in ratified treaties, as well as student organizations.
In recent times, the CHR has also been saddled with slashed budgets and harassment targeting its leaders, leading to its inability to properly fulfill its mandate of protecting human rights in the country, and ensuring that there is accountability for violators.
However, even if the human rights landscape seems bleak, both Diokno and Conde see positives.
Diokno says that the human rights situation in the country can be improved with concerted action from the populace at large. Such action requires the support of the mass public, but it is entirely possible. Diokno cites how slavery was commonplace once but was entirely abolished within a single lifetime – as proof of the possibility of positive change.
Meanwhile, Conde cites the more energized civil society that sprung up over the past six years as a positive, as well as increased solidarity between the media as the fourth estate and activists to tag human rights abuses and advocate for human rights.
In the end, both see room for improvement in the human rights situation. However, it is not likely to improve on its own; rather, it would require the conscious effort of the public. The most obvious takeaway would be to elect politicians who would fight for human rights, but there are other avenues of supporting the cause such as activism and civil or social movements.
It is also important that individuals and organizations alike familiarize themselves with what rights are accorded them by both local and national law as ratified in our legislation and our constitution. We have discussed a few of the major ones here, but there are more rights that we were not able to discuss or dive into. It is in your best interests to learn about them in order to be able to protect them more effectively.
Always be aware of your own rights. It might take some study, but nothing will help you protect your rights more than being aware of them in the first place.